I started this post in response to the Dolezal case. In my opinion, the McKinney episode and a Facebook rant deserved more attention since they get us closer to a discussion about race that is not trapped in personality issues or family dynamics. But in light of last night’s events at “Mother Emanuel” A.M.E. Church, I have reshaped the draft of the initial post. It may be too early to understand what motivated the young man to sit in a church with people worshipping for an hour before he started shooting. The FBI’s quick assertion that this incident was a hate crime suggests that we will be looking at the young man’s racial assumptions. And yet again, we will have to examine how mental issues overwhelm us without adequate solutions to help those who suffer. The early observations are still valid, but the outburst of violence and the taking of life reveal the consequences of our inability to be honest with our racial assumptions and past.
Having taught a course that surveys American history the category we call “race” for more than five years, I have taken a simple approach with students. We explore how Europeans and later Americans created the idea of race to explain difference through the process of codifying laws to explain racial categories. In the process, we explore the nature of legal construction and its social consequences. Even though I show them how race has been constructed—it is not real—I explain to them how we use race in our every day lives. I also try to get them to think of racism in terms that go beyond hate or violence. If we all realize how we assume racial preferences, we might be able to talk about race more honestly. I display hope by talking about the issues every year, but it is hope because I am not convinced we will ever overcome this struggle with the power of the idea of race. To show how easy this discussion works, a news story will play out in such a way that I can show them what I mean.
Over the course of the past several months, I would have had multiple stories to show them how the social construction of race means we overemphasize race to explain behavior and the stories’ participants did the same thing. But those constructions have real life implications and consequences. As much as Rachel Dolezal’s case creates a stir, growing more bizarre every day, it becomes one more example of how race is constructed and deconstructed over time. Since cultural anthropologists now think all humans come from a group of about 10,000 people who originated in the the eastern part of Africa and DNA supports this assertion, everyone in the U.S. can claim some connection to Africa. The social constructions of laws, however, means that we codified cultural experience into a racial category. African Americans, perhaps rightly, claim that beyond skin color or hair type the communal experience of suffering and oppression define the “race.” Dolezal’s claim falls short on that point. Beyond her strange attempt at identity, however, we are caught in the web of racial assumptions based in part on how we have been taught historically to see African Americans. Though people are always more than those legal definitions, those definitions mark identity and we have been left with that historical legacy. The consequences of those constructions, however, have a potency that rears its head every now and again. And as I point out to my students this form of racism resides in the deep corners of inner circles of friends and families creating echo chambers if we are not careful.
When I have a student tell me that she is not racist nor is her family, some time later in the semester I present a scenario where the person falls in love with someone who does not look like her. When the person takes the new love home to meet the family, how well will that go over? If mom and dad are fine, what about a grandma or granddad? Most students regardless of skin tone have the same reaction: the meeting will not go well. As I point out, the student has had race coded for her even if she is unaware of it. We have all been racialized to see the world in racial terms. In the scenario, racial preference appears innocent (though it is not) so I’ll point out how friends in a dorm room will say things in “private” that they know would be inappropriate in “public.” Famly members at a reunion barbecue make racist comments to one another because it feels safe. In both of those scenarios I point out no one sees the harm because they don’t see the foul, even as the children at the reunion come to think of the groups mentioned in casual conversation in racialized terms. But a news story last week helped me see how my illustrations failed to include one new wrinkle: social media. The events in Charleston suggest that we may not be prepared for the full range of consequences this internalization of race hate creates.
The pool party incident in McKinney, Texas, shocked observers as the details came out. Kids may get out of hand, but what about the adult to started the yelling spree. And regardless of how much yelling occurred, a police officer pulling a gun on unarmed children appeared over the top regardless of what the kids had done, which by that point on camera appeared to be nothing. He made a snap judgment, and it was a poor one with real consequences for his family and his career, as well as those young people he pulled a gun on. The bigger story, which really was not a big enough story, involved a Texas elementary school teacher. Her Facebook post about problem children and their race caused a brief news storm when she posted her feelings regarding the officer’s resignation:
This makes me ANGRY! This officer should not have to resign. I’m going to just go ahead and say it. . .the blacks are the ones causeing the problems and this ‘racial tension.’ I guess that’s what happens when you flunk out of school and have no education. . . . I’m almost to the point of wanting them all segregated on one side of town so they can hurt each other and leave the innocent people alone. Maybe the 50s and 60s were really on to something. #imnotreacist [sic]
Her tiriade exposes something about how we understand race today. When it was legal to segregate, change could occur by showing how morally corrupt and antithetical the laws were to Americans’ sense of decency. As I point out to students, the end of legal segregation did not end racism, if anything it made it harder to address because it simmers under the surface. Had the school teacher chose to tell her family and friends her feelings about the McKinney incident, nothing changes because they likely agree with her racial assumptions. She saw Facebook as that inner circle, but social media forced that internal conversation out into the open.
The bigger problem is the hashtag. As long as the opinion does not harm an individual, even when it is clearly racist, we knee-jerk to say I’m not a racist because we know socially it is not acceptable, and really only the Klan or a white supremacist group get to carry that tag is how we justify the response. This kind of thinking is harder to address, but the example lets us see it. In an interview with a high school classmate of the shooter in Charleston, the classmate indicated that the shooter made “racist jokes” but wasn’t really a racist. What does that mean? We have to break this idea that racism only occurs when someone spews hate or cause violence in the name of racial pride. Racism occurs in the daily decisions we make based on assumptions we have about people based on the phenotypes and stereotypes.
If earlier generations constructed race using law to justify separation, we construct it in our homes when we make generalizations about groups or in our friend circle when we hear something like these comments but laugh them off even as they make us uncomfortable. In the case of Charleston, failure to speak honestly about racial assumptions may have led us to the full revelation of how racism inhabits all of us and has real consequences beyond our family and friends. We have to own our racial assumptions because that is the only way we can live beyond their power.